note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
Breaking from the seasonally-traditional Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and musical extravaganzas, Merrimack Repertory Theatre has produced a heartwarming 70-minute, one-act production of Booth Tarkington’s short story, “Beasley’s Christmas Party,” that’s cleverly adapted by C.W. Munger and making its New England premiere in Lowell. Tarkington, you’ll remember, won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, “The Magnificent Ambersons;” and “Beasley’s Christmas Party” is rated among his best short stories. Director Carl Forsman and the cast of three versatile Equity actors - Joey Collins, Crystal Finn, and Tony Ward- maintain a record-breaking pace as they switch from one character to another, with nary a costume change, but with creative facial features, physical gestures and voice changes.
Although the story was written in 1909 and set in the Midwest, its message is timeless and moving, applicable to here, now, and in the future. Tarkington’s language at times waxes lyrical, poetical, during Collins’ narration, adding to its charm.
Joey Collins portrays Booth, an eager and curious news reporter who has relocated to a new job in Wainwright, at the Wainwright Morning Despatch. He lives in a boarding house but admires the next-door architecturally splendid home, whose owner is, indeed, eccentric, calling outside to an imaginary St. Bernard dog named Simpledoria during the night. The neighbor also interacts with invisible human guests. We wonder whether this genteel fellow is losing touch with reality, or whether there’s a supernatural or reasonable explanation for his peculiar behavior.
Luckily, Booth is assigned to interview his prestigious neighbor, David Beasley, a well-known congressman who “never made a speech but got everything his district wanted”. He is also considering a run for governor.
Beasley is known for his kindliness, caring about others, and his quiet demeanor. He’s so silent, his lovely next-door neighbor, Ann Apperthwaite, broke off their engagement after six years because, she complained, he didn’t speak, and was a man of “no imagination”. Miss Apperthwaite, a math teacher, is keenly aware of her approaching spinsterhood and prefers it over her painfully dull former engagement to Beasley. Instead, she recedes into reading her favorite book, “Les Miserables,” admiring its honorable, kindly hero, Jean Valjean. Crystal Finn is delightful as Ann Apperthwaite, but when she evolves rapidly from one role to another, she shines most brightly as little, disabled boy, Hamilton Swift Jr. She also portrays Booth’s testy, omniscient Cousin, a journal man, a political opponent of Beasley’s and another gentleman.
Co-star Tony Ward is equally terrific in his multiple roles. He’s charming as Beasley and Beasley’s friend, politician-lawyer Mr. Dowden; Beasley’s faithful, “colored” old servant, Bob; Beasley’s mean-spirited political opponent, Simeon Peck; and Booth’s editor.
I won’t reveal the plot here, because it’s fanciful and enlightening, culminating with Beasley’s hosting a most unusual, private Christmas gala at his home. Besides the plot, designer Beowulf Boritt’s set design is peculiar --- four tall columns with stacked memorabilia, furniture, suitcases, and a small, pull-out window used to eavesdrop on Beasley.
During this season of brotherly love, peace on earth and goodwill towards everyone, “Beasley’s Christmas Party” is a wonderful reminder of the true spirit of the season, and will warm the cockles of your heart.
BOX INFO: One-act, 70-minute play, written by Booth Tarkington, adapted by C.W. Munger, appearing at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack St., Lowell, through Dec. 19. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 12, at 2,7 p.m., Dec.19 at 2 p.m. only. Post-show forums, Dec. 9,16, after the 7:30 p.m. show. Tickets start at $25, with discounts for students, seniors and groups; family 4-pack (2 adults, 2 children), $100. Visit www.MerrimackRep.org or call the Box Office at 978-654-4678